What killed painter/filmmaker/musician Jean-Michel Basquait?
The “short answer” is: a drug overdose… specifically, a heroin O.D. in New York City on August 12, 1988. However, playwright Ishmael Reed believes that there was much, much more to the tragic story about the iconic artist from Brooklyn whose paintings were being exhibited internationally in galleries and museums in the early ’80’s. Reed’s absorbing, fascinating play The Slave Who Loved Caviar, directed by Carla Blank and now playing at Manhattan’s Theater for the New City, is a self-proclaimed “theatrical investigation”. Heavily awash with symbolism and highly respectful of its subject matter, it is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
The first character we meet in The Slave Who Loved Caviar is actually Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), a seemingly delightful young woman who is excited about going to a masked Halloween party (“The event of the year!”) at the home of The Baron De Whit (Raul Diaz). Who is The Baron De Whit? He’s a tall, enigmatic, hypnotically charming artist with a strange European accent, a fantastic mustache, and an affinity for nightlife. Lest we forget, he also has a taste for … blood. Yes, kids, this character is a literal vampire. He and his companion/”agent” Antonio Wolfe (Jesse Bueno) discuss just how expensive eternal life can be. Since De Whit’s style of conceptual art isn’t bringing in much cash, the two come up with the idea of De Whit acting as patron to some fresh, hip talent with “street cred”. They find just what they’re looking for with a sexy, twenty-something African-American graffiti artist, fittingly named “Young Blood” (Brian Simmons). Just where did the vampire and the Wolfe-man get the idea to exploit a younger, hotter, more talented artist for financial gain? Well, from the story of Jean-Michel Basquait and Andy Warhol…
That’s where the parallel mission of The Slave Who Loved Caviar comes into play. Via the narration of hard-working forensic experts Grace (also played by Kenya Wilson) and Raksha (Monisha Shiva), The Slave Who Loved Caviar transports the audience of Theater for the New City back into the world that created Basquait– as in Basquait the artist. It is a time capsule of New York City, where the Lower East Side graffiti which inspired Basquait’s “street art” was only a subway ride away from high end galleries. Being the ’80’s, it was a moment in time for a generation of over-the-top nightlife figures, whose personalities were as colorful as the blindingly bright fashions of the day, to have their spotlight. It was also a moment in time where the issues of race, celebrity, and socioeconomic status were characters in their own right. (Apparently, not much has changed through the decades…) In that aforementioned cast of “dramatis personae”, it would be the man born “Andrew Warhola” who ultimately would have the most influence on Jean-Michel Basquait’s pop culture legacy. On a darker note, the two forensic experts– via enough research material to fill a college course– make a strong case that the Warhol association also led to Basquait’s personal downfall as well. Warhol was the more established and influential of the two men, but the forensic experts point out that Warhol’s success as an artist was on the decline in the 80’s, while Basquait’s was on the rise. Wouldn’t the older man gain from attaching himself to this young, dangerously sexy renegade who wore paint-spattered designer clothes? As both this play and several other works of media (including the flawed but watchable 2006 movie Factory Girl) have brought to light, Warhol had a long history of exploiting the many eccentric characters who populated his Factory. Put another way, he was what many would call a “psychic vampire” (ahem…)
Connecting the side-by-side stories of the literal bloodsucker and the metaphorical one from three decades ago is the no-nonsense Detective Mary Van Helsing (Played to audience-pleasing perfection by Roz Fox), who was highly aware of the Basquait tragedy of the ’80’s and who is determined to avoid history repeating itself in 2021. Will the Detective topple Baron De Whit’s scheme? Or, will “Young Blood” become yet another victim of an opportunistic “mentor”? And, whatever happened to Jennifer Blue from the first scene?
Interestingly, no actor in The Slave Who Loved Caviar is credited as playing either Basquait or Warhol, and only once do we see any physical embodiment of either of these two men on stage, albeit while sleeping and only in silhouette. That said, the audience for The Slave Who Loved Caviar will learn a lot about both Basquait and Warhol: the proverbial good, bad, and ugly. Spoiler alert: There’s plenty of all three. The audience learns about both men via information taken from books, articles, movies, and stories recollected from anyone lucky enough to have survived those heady and hedonistic days of The Factory. With over 30 years having passed since Basquait’s untimely death at age 27 and Warhol’s death the year before, there has been a lot of time for analysis of both of these men’s individual psyches, as well as exploration of the pair’s idiosyncratic relationship. Was Warhol something of a father figure? Could he have harbored sexual feelings for Basquait? Was it a mutually beneficial relationship that turned exploitative? There’s enough food for thought in Reed’s play to have kept the masses well-nourished during the 2020 lockdown.
True to Basquait’s personal and artistic vision, Ishmael Reed never shies away or downplays the concurrent issues of race, celebrity, and socioeconomic issues that contributed to this “malice in wonderland”. In fact, Reed dives right in. This was, after all, the New York City art world where art critics and well-moneyed buyers raved over Basquait’s so-called “primitive” works, but the issues of injustice which the artist explored may as well have been happening on another planet. The unique situation of black artists in a predominantly white, affluent art world is also explored, including one phenomenal, no-holes-barred scene between “Young Blood” and fallen artist Jack Brooks (played by Robert Turner, who’s a revelation.). Speaking of great performances: Raul Diaz is appropriately campy and over-the-top as the modern-day descendant of Dracula. He and his literal partner in crime, Antonio Wolfe, make a fine comedic duo. Particular kudos are in order for Kenya Wilson, who stepped in to play both Grace as well as the shadow image of actor Richard Pryor for this performance. Yes, Richard Pryor (voiced by Maurice Carlton) does appear in the play, via dream, to a give a sleeping Basquait some legitimately supportive advice about the dangers of stardom. (In Pryor’s case, the demons colonized in Hollywood rather than Basquait’s New York City art scene.) The dream sequence is a truly awe-inspiring creative directorial touch.
The Slave Who Loved Caviar is ambitious and poetic, and important on both historical and cultural levels. It may have been 33 years since Jean-Michel Basquait’s passing, but as Reed’s unique interpretation proves, the artist’s story is more important in 2022 as it ever was.
Ishmael Reed’s The Slave Who Loved Caviar continues through Sunday, January 9, 2022 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave, New York City. Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00 PM; and Sundays at 3:00 PM. This is a hybrid production, where audiences can see it in person for $15 or via livestreaming for $10. Visit The Slave Who Loved Caviar – Theater for the New City for tickets and more information.